To usher in the Year of the Sheep, the Liberal Party of Canada threw a reception on Thursday for leading members of the Chinese-Canadian community. Justin Trudeau was the headliner, and his controversial guest of honour was the Chinese ambassador Luo Zhaohui.
Gathering at the exclusive but casual Boulevard Club in Toronto, 200 or so attendees were lavished with dim sum and entertainment. A trio of girls in sequined miniskirts sang about being too sexy in this club (this one, certainly). A young diva belted out an impressive aria. Although it was billed as a private event, the Chinese community channel CCCTV and the local multicultural channel OMNI were positioned to capture the money shot of Mr. Trudeau with Mr. Luo, a moment meant to evoke a historical echo, given Mr. Trudeau's father's storied closeness with the autocratic country. Ultimately, the federal Liberal Leader arrived; the ambassador, however, was a no-show.
Mr. Luo, it was announced, had to "prepare for high-level meetings." At the same time, appearing at this kind of event could be risky or unseemly for a diplomat, who shouldn't be seen as interfering in domestic affairs– an issue that is especially sensitive for China, which rebukes any criticism of its handling of Tibet or Hong Kong. On Thursday, the NDP criticized the gathering. "It's a partisan event attempting to raise awareness for the Liberal Party," said Charlie Angus, the official Opposition's ethics critic.
Yet these kinds of photo-ops are political manna for winning new minority votes in the heavily contested suburban Toronto ridings, where the Liberals lost significant ground to the Conservatives and the NDP in the last federal election. Already there have been indications that Liberal candidates – and their Leader – are using foreign endorsements to burnish their multicultural credentials or even bulk up their war chest for the upcoming contest.
Pakistan's consul-general in Toronto, Asghar Ali Golo, was at a party fundraiser recently with Mr. Trudeau in Mississauga and also appeared at the opening of the headquarters of Salma Zahid, who is running in Scarborough Centre.
While this kind of activity does not constitute any breach of electoral rules, it lives at the complicated intersection of diplomatic protocol and multicultural politics. "That kind of thing is going over the edge," said Fen Hampson, distinguished fellow and director at CIGI's Global Security & Politics Program, before Thursday's no-show. "You'd be seen as courting the opposition, or worse, playing to their electoral song sheet. You can be badly burned if that party doesn't form a new government and find yourself on the list where calls won't get answered by a minister if you were seen as dabbling in domestic politics."
Mr. Golo could not be reached for comment.
When asked about how to navigate this zone of pre-election politics, a senior G7 diplomat said that visiting the campaign headquarters wouldn't be a problem, provided that respects were also paid to the rivals. Going to a fundraiser, on the other hand, crossed the line. Why go if you wouldn't be contributing financially? "There's a risk of being seen as being involved with internal politics," the diplomat said.
Some eyebrows have been raised by an endorsement given to Gary Anandasangaree, who is running in Scarborough-Rouge Park. Recently, the human-rights advocate and lawyer promoted the praise emanating from Rajavarothiam Sampanthan, the leader of Sri Lanka's Tamil Party.
"We earnestly seek the support of all our people for Gary Anandasangaree," he implored. The nominee's explanation? "It's just for my own nomination, not for the party," he said.
Liberal spokesman Cameron Ahmad said he isn't aware of any party strategy to leverage endorsements or appearances for votes, nor should these associations surprise anyone. "It wouldn't be unusual for a diplomat to be in touch with a politician," he said.
Mr. Ahmad also said that the Boulevard Club lunch was not a partisan event, adding that guests did not pay to attend. The half-dozen guests that The Globe and Mail spoke to confirmed as much.
"It was a little disappointing that the ambassador didn't come," said Irwin Li, a businessman and president of the Association of Chinese-Canadian Entrepreneurs who is not a Liberal Party member.
"But Justin Trudeau showed that he's approachable and impressive. He took a picture with every person in the room.He's not your traditional politician who shows up and walks away."
The luncheon had some partisan kick. Flanked by Chinese-Canadian candidates running across the top of Toronto – who the party hopes will capture votes from the emerging bloc of Mainlanders – Mr. Trudeau reached out to the audience by invoking his legacy. "It is an auspicious year for me because my father was born in the Year of the Goat," he said, referring to the Chinese New Year's other animal name.
It didn't take him long to pounce on his enemies back in Ottawa – political animals who, in his telling, divide and rule.
Editor's note: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the event was covered by Chinese state media channel CCTV. In fact, the event was covered by Chinese community channel CCCTV.